JPL engineer Tracy Van Houten to give inspirational talk to Girls Inc. of Carpinteria
Tracy Van Houton’s dream job is out of this world.
Essentially it has taken her to Mars and now to Europa — a moon around Jupiter where there’s believed to be more water than Earth and where that might be life, at least on a microorganic scale.
She gets to see the drama of the solar system unfold as a lead engineer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the Pasadena area site that develops and oversees unmanned missions for NASA.
Mrs. Van Houton, 40, wants to encourage more girls and young women to get interested in space and other science, technology, engineering and math fields. She’ll share her enthusiasm during her keynote speech at the annual Women of Inspiration luncheon from noon to 1:30 p.m. Monday at Girls Inc. of Carpinteria.
“What gets me excited is my work on inclusion and diversity, to bring as many women, who were historically excluded from STEM, into JPL as possible. It’s inspiring to pass that excitement to the next generation,” Mrs. Van Houton, a rocket scientist and lead Europa Clipper System Testbed lead engineer, told the News-Press this week by phone from Pasadena.
Mrs. Van Houten, who has also worked on the Curiosity and Perseverance rover missions on Mars, has worked to recruit more women at JPL.
She said about 9% of JPL engineers were women when she became interested in high school in pursuing the field. That was one of the reasons, in fact, she went into aerospace.
“When I discovered I was good at engineering design in a high school class, I thought maybe I should be an engineer,” said the San Diego native who grew up in nearby Poway. “I started to explore it, but I don’t remember meeting one woman engineer until I had already decided to become one.”
She realized that by becoming an engineer, she would do her part to help improve the ratio of women to men in a male-dominated industry.
Today, the number of female engineers at JPL is a little over 20%, an improvement, but more progress is needed to reach a 50-50 ratio between women and men, said Mrs. Van Houton, who earned her bachelor’s in aerospace engineering at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, where she was involved with the Society of Women Engineers. She went on to earn her master’s in aeronautical engineering at USC.
Mrs. Van Houton said she will talk to the Girls Inc. audience about her work on the Curiosity and Perseverance rover missions on Mars. “I will talk about how they’re not just great names for space missions, but they’re qualities that girls and all of us who support them need to embody if we’re going to make it in STEM and make it a more fair and equitable career path.
“Curiosity is about asking those big questions (about STEM subjects) — looking outward questions,” Mrs. Van Houton said. “But it’s also about looking-inward questions, about what I can personally achieve in my lifetime to improve my community and solve problems around me.
“Perseverance — I usually say anything worth doing is going to be paved with so many setbacks,” she said, adding that it’s important not to quit.
“We do see that girls and young women will tend to leave engineering and STEM with a higher GPA than their male counterparts who leave,” she said. “Keep going. Don’t quit when you hit those hard college classes. Seek a support system.”
Mrs. Van Houton said that during her career, she faced some unconscious bias from men. “I have seen that not just in my career but for the women I support and have mentored. I’ve definitely seen unconscious bias and subtle sexism and sometimes overt issues of sexism.
“I’ve tried to be a person throughout my career to call those out and support individuals experiencing that,” she said, noting bias has existed not just at JPL but throughout the aerospace industry.
“I would say specifically within the last few years, I’ve seen a shift in attitudes and acknowledgement that these things (sexism) have gone on and are going on,” Mrs. Van Houton said. “I’ve seen dedicated efforts to improve both at JPL and the aerospace industry. It’s still a long way to go, but what feels good is seeing that a lot of leaders are talking the right talk and putting words into action. We’re now on the right path. For many years, it felt like one step forward, two steps back.
“In addition to my technical job, I’m a recruiter who interfaces with women engineers and women organizations to hire women,” Mrs. Van Houten said. “I would say every time I go to a recruitment event that I’m blown away by the talent and quality of candidates.”
Mrs. Van Houten said the growth of programs in public schools, as well as Girls Inc. programming, is making a difference in bringing more girls and women into STEM careers. “I didn’t get exposure until late in high school to what engineering is. Exposure at a much younger age is helping girls to be inspired by women in STEM and to see that they’re good at it.”
Today, Mrs. Van Houten said she still gets goosebumps when she walks into mission control at JPL and sees operations spanning the solar system.
“A singular highlight of my career was seeing Curiosity touch down,” she said. “It was the first mission I worked on that landed.”
Mrs. Van Houten said JPL plans to launch the Europa Clipper probe in late 2024.
Europa Clipper, NASA’s largest planetary mission spacecraft with a height of 16 feet, is expected to arrive at Jupiter in April 2030.
She said she and her engineering team are responsible for testing the interactions between the flight software and hardware. “We’ll run hundreds of thousands of tests to verify and validate the system is behaving as designed.”
Testing of the completed spacecraft will involve it being examined for enduring extreme heat and extreme cold — the stuff of space — in a special chamber at JPL.
Ultimately, Europa Clipper will orbit Jupiter and study Europa’s ocean during flybys. JPL says there’s strong evidence that an ocean of liquid water is beneath the moon’s crust and that Europa is considered one of the most promising places to find a habitable environment in the solar system.
“Europa has more water than Earth under a very thick ice shell,” Mrs. Van Houten said, noting the probe will study with instruments such as a magnetometer and thermal mapping devices.
“We’ll have both narrow angle and wide angle cameras to bring some excellent new imagery from Europa,” she added.
She said the mission will explore whether Europa could have been or could be hospitable to life.
If life does exist there, it likely would be microorganisms, Mrs. Van Houten said.
“This mission absolutely has my heart and interest,” she said. “I actually was part of a small team that authored the proposal to NASA headquarters that led to this mission being authorized by NASA. I did several other flight projects between that and returning to Europa, but I always wanted to get back on Europa for the final implementation stage.”